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Walmart Patents Ingenious Blockchain-Based Tech for Supporting Drone Deliveries

BY Zacc Dukowitz
29 August 2019

News recently broke that Walmart has filed a patent for a blockchain-based drone delivery system, putting the retail giant in the news again for its drone patents.

Although the blockchain patent application was filed at the start of this year, it was only published this month.

walmart-drone-patent
From Walmart’s blockchain-based drone delivery patent application

The patent describes technology that would allow delivery drones located near each other to exchange information. Using blockchain-based keys, the drones would exchange authenticating signals to confirm they belong to Walmart and are in the same fleet. Once the drones have identified themselves, they would be able to pass packages between each other for delivery.

This new patent application is not the first time Walmart has dipped its toes into the blockchain applications. Last year Walmart partnered with IBM to create a blockchain-based “smart package” system, which was used to help track groceries being moved to its stores.

[View Walmart’s blockchain patent application here.]

What Is Blockchain?

A blockchain is a distributed ledger of information—imagine a spreadsheet containing various data points.

But whereas a spreadsheet uses rows and columns, blockchains contain data as “blocks” of information. These blocks are added to the chain in chronological order, creating a chain of blocks linked together.

Because the blocks in a blockchain can only be added onto, not changed after creation, blockchains allow for information to be stored, tracked, and exchanged in a way that is secure, shareable, and immune from tampering.

The difficulty of tracking products is particularly magnified where participant vendors in the supply chain are a confederation of independent competitors implementing wholly disparate inventory and supply chain management control systems . . . the approaches to solving these challenges . . . involve using a blockchain.

Walmart blockchain patent application

In the last few years, many industries have been exploring potential applications for blockchain technology for encrypting and securing data, and for sharing data between multiple parties.

Why Does Walmart Want a Blockchain Patent for Drone Deliveries?

One of the major benefits of using blockchain-based systems for communication is that blockchain can provide a highly secure way to share information.

Walmart plans to use the blockchain technology proposed in its patent application to enhance communications between drones and other delivery vehicles, which transmit data such as the vehicle’s unique identifier, speed, location, and route(s), as well as, in the case of a drone, its altitude, battery information, and loading capacity.

walmart-drone-patent
Image source

But why is all of this important to Walmart?

Because, in addition to providing greater security, they believe this technology could help them reduce delivery times and delivery costs by streamlining documentation.

Currently, paperwork documentation can make up about 20% of overall shipping costs. It’s been predicted that using blockchain technology to streamline shipping documentation could result in a corresponding cost reduction of 20%, which represents huge potential savings for shipping companies.

In addition to streamlining documentation, here are a few of the concrete benefits blockchain technology could provide when used with delivery drones:

  • Reducing the time required for drones to transfer a package and associated information between each other
  • Addressing line-of-sight requirements in a novel way by having one drone pass a package to the next, allowing the operator of each drone to retain line-of-sight with the drone he or she is flying
  • Helping drones deliver their package to the correct end receiver, whether its a retailer or individual
  • Creating greater transparency around package tracking, including the creation of a single concrete record of a package’s location and delivery status throughout its delivery journey

It is worth noting that, although Walmart has been stacking up drone delivery patents like crazy over the last few years, we’re not aware of the company holding any FAA approvals for drone delivery or having plans to begin testing drone deliveries any time soon.

What do you think—is Walmart holding onto these patents “just in case” or are they serious about using drone delivery for shipping? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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